Into the Mountains with the Tigwahanon Manobo

Bukidnon, Mindanao, Philippines

The Bukidnon plateau is home to seven of the 18 different indigenous groups found in Mindanao. After doing some research I decided it would be a great place to visit for starting the Katutubong Filipino Project. Although our travel to Bukidnon was fairly short we learned a lot about the Lumad people (the Visayan word collectively used for all indigenous people in Mindanao). We spent most of the week with a Manobo community high in the mountains of San Fernando municipality. The Manobo people are just one of the 18 Lumad groups found in Mindanao, however, they have a number of subgroups with slight language differences and practices. The different Manobo tribes are semi-autonomous from the Philippine government and have their own laws, practices and judgements given by tribal chieftains (Datus).

We were not able to visit the original community we wanted to because of an internal clan war that was going on between two Manobo tribes. Apparently, one member stole a firearm from another community which started the conflict. The owner of the firearm was so mad that he told his Datu that for four days he would kill anyone who crossed the path until his gun was returned. We arrived on the second day of this declaration and obviously had to change our plans. (I heard that this man killed a family of four, including two children, after his gun wasn’t returned on the fourth day. We were told the man is now in hiding and will be sentenced to death by the Datu once they find him). After a lot of hard work from our local guide, Jepoy, we found a community that was safe to travel to. We ended up finding a second local guide as well, Jeffery, who was from the Tigwahanon Manobo community we were in route to. We ended up befriending Jeffery and were amazed with his story and insights he was able to tell us about the area. At the end of our trip we decided to bring Jeffery back to Cebu to get to know him better and so he could experience the city. You can read more about Jeffery’s story here.

To get to this particular community we had to travel 45 kilometers on a motorcycle from the main highway and then hike about 5 kilometers straight up into the mountains. I was looking for a community that was a bit more traditional, more isolated from the lowland, and although I saw some of that in this village there is still a good amount of influence from the lowlanders (at least from a visual perspective – wearing mostly western clothes). Culturally, the Manobos are very distinct from the Visayan lowlanders and practice their own ways of life. Many of them cannot understand the Visayan language. Actually, this trip was perfect for the short amount of time that I had and has opened a lot of avenues for future visits. Not only that, but I am starting to get a better understanding of the struggles and issues facing many of the indigenous peoples in the country. Next time I visit Bukidnon we plan to travel by foot for three days to reach, by what Jeffery says, a very authentic community – visually speaking.

Datu Biniti (tribal chieftain) of the Tigwahanon village we stayed in. The chieftain is in charge of judgements and conflicts within the community and what he says is final.

A Manobo family cooking rice and camotes over an open fire in their home. Their diet mainly consists of root crops, rice, maize (once a year) and anything caught in the forest (wild boar, birds, rodents, snakes, lizards).

Dogs lead the way as we head out for a morning hunt in the forest.

Jeffery, our guide, wanted to take us into the forest and show us some of their hunting practices. Most families in this community depend on root crops and what is caught in the forest for their food. However, food can sometimes be scarce so often times dried fish and rice has to be bought in the barangay market (5km down the mountain). On our morning hunt we only caught two small birds and a rodent, hardly enough food for a small family. Because of this some lumads have to use forest resources to make a livelihood for themselves. This is often done my selling live birds to lowlanders, raw material such as abaca and often times logs. The Manobos know it is illegal to commercially sell logs, but because of economic conditions they often do not have an alternative – and they are usually taken advantage of when it comes to selling the logs (read on).

Jeffery and his younger brother, Rubin, look for a bird hit with his shotgun in the forest.

Dogs are used to help dig and find forest rodents for food. At the time I didn't know what was going on - all I saw were two dogs running around like crazy and digging into the earth near the base of a large tree. Rubin was busy pulling up the soil and I thought he was trying to pull a root out of the ground. Eventually one of his dogs surfaced from his burrow and had a rodent in its mouth. Rubin quickly took the rodent from the dog whose head was already off.

Rubin with his catch in the forest takes a moment to look at a bird.

I knew that indigenous people are some of the most marginalized people in the country, but it’s different when you hear first hand their stories. For instance, we were told by a number of Manobos about the abuses brought about by the Philippine military, the ones who should be protecting them. Many of the Manobo women are raped, village pigs killed, and possessions stolen when the military are scouting the forest. During election time, local officials will give 20 pesos ($0.45) to each Manobo to sign away their vote. Because of the number of Manobo their combined vote is often the only way officials can win. There are other stories of lumds not being able to enter restaurants when they are in town because they are deemed as second class citizens by some locals. Unexpected and heartbreaking stories.

Tigwahanon Village in San Fernando, Bukidnon, Mindanao.

Fog in the forest after an afternoon shower. Virgin rainforest surrounds the Tigwahanon community and animals such as the Philippine Eagle are often seen here.

Jeffery climbing down a vine that is used to reach the top of very tall forest trees to collect honey. The particular tree that he climbed was around 150 feet high. He uses no harnesses or straps. He simply climbs the vine along side the tree with bare feet until he reached the top.

Jeffery climbing a vine to collect honey on top of the forest tree.

We were also told that some individuals will lie and give small amounts of money to the Manobos for the chieftains signature in order to log their forests. Logging of any virgin forests in the Philippines is currently illegal because there is a total log ban in place declared by the president. However, indigenous peoples are still allowed to cut trees for their own use (to build their houses, etc.). Some individuals take advantage of this by offering tribal chieftains a small amount of money to log an area of forest. We were also told about the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) the government agency responsible to protect the country’s resources and their inside scandal when it comes to logging these forests. The DENR follow the same practices of logging the Manobos trees and illegally selling them to make under-the-table money. Apparently, the DENR will sometimes partner with a business and make all the documents look like they were approved by the Manobos to log an area of forest – when in fact they were not / or a Datu signature was given for a small amount of money. On one occasion the DENR was given 5 million pesos ($120,000) to arrange all of the documents for an area of forest near the village we visited. The Manobo people are clearly taken advantage of by others and the government, and need better education to know how to best protect their interests.

We noticed that women in this community do the majority of the hard work. The men are their to protect the community, hunt and sit around a lot talking. Women do most of the heavy lifting, planting of crops, pounding rice, raising children, cooking, and all the other day to day tasks.

Women pounding palay (rice in its shell) to remove the rice grains.

Another source of livelihood within the community is the live capture of forest birds. These birds are sold to lowlanders as a source of income for the Manobos. The men use a sticky resin on a wooden pole and allure the birds in with camote roots. When the birds land on the sticky resin they are caught. We ended buying this bird for 100 pesos ($2.50) and released it back into the forest.

Vernan striping away an abaca plant to get its fine raw fibers. Abaca fibers are sold to lowlanders as a source of livelihood for the community.

A Manobo child in class at the community school where two volunteer teachers give lessons. The school reopened in 2007 after eight years of not having any teachers. The small school school is run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church and class is not mandatory for the children.

Some of the families within the community receive government assistant through a program called 4Ps. Those families who receive this assistance must send their children to public school in the local barangay. This requires the children to hike 5km each way up and down the mountain every day. Occasionally, the children will stop to have a swim in the river on their way home.

Picking berries for a snack on the way home from school. Some of the children hike 5km to and from town each day to attend school, crossing the river 12 times each way.

Members of the tribe crossing a mountain river on their way home.

I never felt unsafe during my visit here, but I know that life here is often lived by the barrel of the gun. The Manobos want to protect themselves and often times are ambushed by other Manobo tribes and the military when their is conflict. The NPA (New Peoples Army – Communist Fraction) is another organization roaming the mountains who have their own agenda as well. Life is by no means easy here and conflict and abuse seem to be common topics of discussion.

I’m off to the States for a few weeks to see family and make a few bucks, but I’m excited to get back next month to really jump into this project. I have a sense that it’s going to be a very rewarding year.

A Manobo man on his horse along the edge of the Salug river in Bukidnon, Mindanao.

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Tagged: asia, Bikidnon, conservation, documentary, indigenous people, Manobo, mindanao, philippines, photography,
Posted on: Feb 22, 2012


  • Steven Scott

    Wonderful photo essay.

  • Wow! Thank you.

  • Mark MacLaren Johnson

    Really well done Jacob..enjoyed a lot.

  • Wayne Rowe

    Looking good Jacob, great work!

  • Guest

    Great photos and reporting! Good job, Mr. Jacob!

  • Vinodkhapekar

    Great image’s and superb blog…

  • Mitchell Kanashkevich

    Well done man! Great to see this coming to life! I think you are raising your game, keep it up and you’ll have something really special by the end of the year. Greetings to Nahoma from me and Tanya.

  • Excellent work… Congrats!

  • Brian Mueller

    Vivid photography. Insightful journalistic storytelling. Eagerly awaiting more.

  • Sidney

    Wow… nice work ! Keep it up !

  • Amy & Byron Alcid

    Jacob, Byron and I read this last night on a plane ride home. God we love your work!! Please be safe and please tell me you will publish a book about this!!!!

    • I hope a book will come out of the project. It would be excited to see something like that happen, but still too early to tell. 🙂

  • Brilliant photography, Jacob.

  • Michael Petty

    Great start for the project, wonderful photos. Good luck

  • Melissa Capodanno

    Jake, this is all so foreign and amazing to me… very interesting.. be safe and I’ll look forward to more blogs and photos.

  • Gen

    Jake I am so proud of you and Nahoma… this is really an amazing project!

  • Bperron

    Beautiful work. It looks real enough to walk off the screen, and I’ve been there.

  • John_Childs

    Awesome work Jacob and I am truly amazed at how those folks live. Great photographs as well and very informative. Keep up the good work and travel safe.

  • Auntie Susie

    Jake, After talking with you about this project when you were recently in CT, this update really made what you told us come alive for me. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Exceptional work.

  • Daphne Gonzales

    that was awesome. thank you!

  • Roland de Jesus

    Mahusay, maganda, at tunay na magaling ang oagka kuha ng mga larawan!

  • Lizette Refuerzo

    Truly amazing job you did here. keep it up. 🙂

  • Judegejilimbaro

    very wonderful photos jake. i hope i can help you out in Mindanao adventure. Just give me a ring. i will arrange my regular works.

  • Bruce Liron

    Outstanding images and writing Jacob – must get to catch up sometime when your back in Cebu…….

  • rolito

    Outstanding work Jake!… what you also said is all true, not only in Mindanao but the rest of the achipelago as well. Please keep it up.

  • Carmela Española

    Awesome photos, Jake! For a short stay you did a good job documenting the way of life and struggles of the Manobo, although it also makes me feel that you’ve just scratched the surface, that the story as told is not yet complete. It must be a big challenge to try and capture in photos and words the essence of Manobo life and culture. Am excited for the sequel 🙂

  • I recently went to the Philippines to try and photograph some Mangyan tribes. I ended up in Mindoro, but the tribes I found were very westernised. However in one village was a Christian missionary who had lived with them since he was 9 and can speak their language. He told me he was going to try make contact with a very isolated tribe. He also told me some tribes are so scared of outsiders that women will jump off cliffs. Others have very high tree houses to look out and will abandon the village if they see people coming.
    On a hike to one small village, we startled some owls. The guide caught the little one and said they were going to sell it in the market. I bought it off him for 400 pesos.

  • markyramonego

    awesome captures and narration.

  • love the shots and the story as well.

  • compelling images, sir!

  • Jocey Menoza

    i like the story..trying to put yourself in there…

  • Bless you for coming here and sharing your time, talent and more. Really wonderful photo essay and amazing striking images of native Philippine tribes in one place. Thank you.

  • kim

    It feels strange that it takes a foreigner like you to educate me about our natives. But thank you so much and well done.

  • Wendell Krossa

    Enjoyed the photos a lot. Passed them on to my friend Bob. We lived and worked with the Langilan Manobo for almost 11 years (1975-86). Visited Tigwa areas all the time via the logging roads across the Pantaron Ridge (Pantad- place not submerged in the river, like a sand bar. Refers to the old flood legend when the top of the Pantaron was left above water).
    I was back in 1996 for a visit and hope to do one more with my sons. Still remember the language. Marayow (Mauopia in Tigwahanon) ka mgo litrato ng inpasabuk no dini. No, ogkataga ka bua to kinagian noy?
    Wendell Krossa

    • Hi Wendell..Thanks for having a look at the photos. It’s always great to hear from people who have spent a chunk of their life working with the indigenous people here. You guys have so much knowledge and have certainly done a wonderful thing. Thanks again for stopping by and please let me know if there is anything I can look for or do if I’m in the area where you stayed. I’d be more than happy to do bring hellos, etc. with me. 🙂

      • camilo

        Hello sir, Can I repost your blogs in my blogs, I am lumad from north Cotabato a Monobo Bogobo.

        thank you and God Bless

        • It’s alright as long as you link back to my original post and give credit. Actually, I’d prefer if you didn’t repost the whole article, but just a small section with a link back here to read the full version. Thanks!

  • francois williams

    wonderful/…

  • Warrior Pilgrimage

    Beautiful images, wonderful story. My heart pity the children going to school and back. Love your work Jacob.

  • Reina Y.

    Wow!!! I have never read a beautiful essay as this in describing the manobos. I have lived in Bukidnun and yet I am ashamed to admit that I have never really get to know the manobo’s way of life. Thank you for this enlightenment.

  • Keep up the good work! Thanks for the wonderful photos these help me finish my blog at http://lagromac.blogspot.com/2014/06/community-work-101-best-university-for.html

  • Hi Sir Jacob, just wondering if you got information that the river with “members of the tribe crossing….” is part of the Pulangi River flowing to Liguasan Marsh of Maguindanao passing [North] Cotabato province?

    In 2001-2003 I’ve worked with Indigenous Peoples, the Mandaya, Ata and Dibabawon of Davao del Norte and Compostela Valley and the Teduray of Upi, Maguindanao. I just recalled the [serious] joke of my Teduray friend, “if Pulangi river died up, Liguasan Marsh has no water anymore”.

    • Celestino, I wish I had some information for you, but unfortunately I do not know the answer to this. Hope you will find it somewhere.

  • Chiq

    Just came across this article while researching about the Manobo tribe, this is really an amazing essay, with striking images! Thank you very much Mr. Jacob!

  • Sharmaine Cariño

    This is amazing. Great job! 🙂

  • Angeline Gilliam

    Gorgeous Photography. Great use with the natural lighting. Wonderful job.

  • Diana

    Thank you for sharing these photos and their story. Very insightful.

  • Pingback: Breathtaking Bukidnon: What Lies Beyond Asia’s Longest Zipline? – D'yan lang.()

  • Hi. May I use three of your photographs for an article I wrote for our school paper at Rosevale School CDO. Of course, you get to be mentioned as the source of the pictures.

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